The overnight assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad by US forces sent shock waves through Tehran on Friday, quickly ripening into promises of calculated revenge by Iran and its regional allies.
In the hours after the attack, a source close to the top echelons of power in Tehran confided: “We are in shock now.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared three days of national mourning as the Twitter account associated with his office threatened “severe revenge.”
“This is war,” read the headline of the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar.
“There are red lines that have been obliterated by Soleimani’s assassination,” the lead article said.
“The assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis,” the article continued, “cannot pass like other events in the region.”
“The United States will pay a heavy price. The red lines do not fall from one side.”
Hezbollah, with the personal involvement of Soleimani, has over the past years transformed from a local guerrilla movement fighting Israel into a regional military power, most notably through its combat in Syria.
The Shiite group has been careful to avoid major conflict with Israel since July 2006, exercising restraint with its traditional foe. That conflict is one theater that could potentially reheat in the coming weeks and months, as allies of the Islamic Republic vow a role in hitting back.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday pledged that the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis by a strike on their vehicle after leaving the Baghdad airport would not go unanswered.
“The resistance factions will prove their great and sincere loyalty to these martyrs and their noble goals; their pure blood was shed unjustly and it will not go to waste,” the Lebanese Shiite leader said in a statement.
Perhaps far more consequential for US troops was an announcement by the influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that he was reactivating his militia, the Mahdi Army, more than a decade after renouncing bloody street battles with American forces.
In the wake of the targeted killing of Soleimani and Muhandis, who led the Iraqi paramilitary force Kataeb Hezbollah, the nationalist cleric called on “all mujahideen, especially the Mehdi Army, to prepare themselves to defend Iraq.”
While Sadr maintains close ties with Iran, it was a major statement by a political figure who just two and a half years ago sat down with Washington’s protégé, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“We woke up and we’re suddenly hearing rhetoric that was not there before,” said Noam Raydan, a Baghdad-based geopolitical analyst who has been tracking the US-Iran regional escalation since May.
The killing of Qasem Soleimani, who had developed a near-mythical stature in Iran and the wider region – emerging in black, flanked by militia in Aleppo city one day, and camped on the front lines against ISIS in Kurdish garb the next – would have been unthinkable just 24 hours ago.
“The situation seems to be getting out of control, and I base this on the statements we’re hearing from Iranian partners in Iraq and Lebanon,” Raydan told Asia Times.
The shock killing of the Quds Force commander was almost surely viewed as a red line, according to the analyst, and one which will reshape the rules of engagement between the players in Iraq.
The US attack occurred roughly a week after a volley of rockets by the Iraqi paramilitary group Kataeb Hezbollah killed an American contractor and wounded a number of US and Iraqi servicemen at a base in the west of the country.
The US then bombed a Kataeb Hezbollah base on Sunday, killing 25 militiamen. A funeral march to commemorate the deaths in Baghdad on Tuesday saw supporters of the militia break into the heavily fortified Green Zone and breach the gates of the US embassy compound.
The escalation also prompted fresh calls for American forces to withdraw from Iraq.
Iran will likely take its time in executing a calculated response for the death of its revered commander, and one which should go beyond the summer’s attacks on Persian Gulf shipping or even the precision attack on Saudi Aramco claimed by its Houthi allies in Yemen.
“The killings of Soleimani and Muhandis leave the Iranians with no option to respond,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Middle East Center.
“The Iranians are masters at asymmetric warfare and maneuvering in grey areas. The response will be on their timing, and it could be anywhere,” he told Asia Times.
A fresh attack in the Gulf is unlikely, Dorsey said, given the recent months of conciliatory moves by the United Arab Emirates and a stalled but not abandoned mediation process with Saudi Arabia.
Given the current financial and political crisis in Lebanon, Hezbollah will likely seek to avert a new war with Israel, and Iran will likely seek to keep Iraq – whose economic well being is critical for its survival – from further degeneration.
The reprisal could well occur outside the Middle East, Dorsey said, with possible targets including embassies, companies and individuals.
“You’ve had Iranian-backed operations in Thailand in the past … And over the years attacks across the globe with groups associated with Iran. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next tit in this tit-for-tat comes out of left field,” he told Asia Times.
But to honor the stature of Soleimai, the target must be of significance.
“It can’t be just some American tourist getting knocked off.” ♦